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Coming Out About Mental Illness

You've just been diagnosed with a mental illness. Now what? Here's how to tell the people you love.
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Getting a diagnosis for depression -- or any mental illness -- is no easy task, but getting validation and treatment can be a great relief.

The hard part for many people is telling family, friends, and other loved ones about the diagnosis, given the prevalence of stigma and ignorance in regards to mental illness. It's important that you take the disclosure process seriously, and protect yourself. The good news is you have control over who you tell, and WebMD can help guide you through the process. The following expert advice will also help you if you're the caregiver, partner, parent, or friend of someone with a mental illness.

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Coming to Terms With Your Feelings

It's an unfortunate fact that not everyone is going to support your decision to seek treatment for a mental illness; some people may not even believe mental illnesses exist. "Society stigmatizes mental illness," says Joan A. Lang, MD, professor and chair of the department of psychiatry at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. This can make the process of telling people about your condition extremely challenging. "An awful lot of the trepidation stems from the fact that there is still a lot of stigma and people who are very ignorant and insensitive, but it also comes from internalized stigma."

As a result you should look at your own feelings about your mental health before you subject yourself to the ideas of others. Lang says patients who have feelings of guilt, shame, or a notion that they are somehow weakened for needing help can get hurt when others tout misconceptions and reinforce negative feelings.

"Our cultural understanding of mental illness is that you are just not trying hard enough. We never say that about cancer or heart disease," says Joyce Burland, PhD, director of the education, training, and peer support center at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). "America thinks mental illness is something that can get self-corrected, and that is a vast misunderstanding."

Who to Tell About Mental Illness

There is no rule for who needs to know about your mental illness diagnosis, but sharing it with someone is probably a great way to get support. Lang says you should assess how disclosing your mental illness fits into your character -- for example, how private you usually are -- apart from the mental illness.

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